Private Practice

By structuring individualized practices to fit athletes’ needs, Princeton Head Coach Scott Bradley allows them to succeed on the field and in the classroom.

By Steve Eschenbach

Steve Eschenbach is a freelance writer in Millburn, N.J.

Coaching Management, 13.2, February 2005, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/cm/cm1302/privatepractice.htm

When Scott Bradley took the job as Head Baseball Coach at Princeton University, he had a talk with his brother about the challenge of structuring effective practices. Bob Bradley, the winningest coach in Major League Soccer history, offered a simple piece of advice: “Never let your players feel like they’re wasting time.”

It’s a problem as old as baseball itself: How can you design practices so your athletes don’t spend a lot of time waiting to take their turn? How can you get the most out of every practice minute?

For Scott Bradley, the answer came in creating a system that treats his student-athletes as individuals, emphasizing small group practices over full-team workouts, and working the bulk of his sessions with two or three players at a time. Yes, there are still all-squad practices, which are held primarily on weekends. Yes, some things can be practiced only as a team—for example, cut-off throws, double plays, and pick-offs. And yes, team chemistry needs to be built. But for Bradley, the key to developing his players lies in teaching each of them the basics of offense and defense, which can easily be done one-on-one to fit around his athletes’ class schedules.

Bradley’s strategy has worked. In his seven seasons as Head Coach, he has compiled a 174-145 record and captured four Ivy League titles, equaling the number that Princeton’s baseball team had won in the previous 52 years. In recent years, the Tigers have defeated such top 25 teams as the University of North Carolina, the University of Virginia, and Old Dominion University, beating future first-round major league draft pick Justin Verlander in the process. The program has also produced 12 major league draftees, including Chris Young, who took the mound for the Texas Rangers on Aug. 24, becoming Princeton’s first major leaguer in 21 years.

Bradley’s system of individual and small-group practices isn’t easy. For one thing, it takes a greater time commitment from the coaches, who must make themselves available throughout the week. It also takes athletes who are highly self-motivated, both on and off the field. But at Princeton, it’s worked very, very well—well enough to warrant an in-depth look at what a more time-sensitive practice approach looks like.

Making It Work
One reason Bradley likes his practice “environment”—a term he prefers to “system”—is that Princeton is a tough place to be an athlete. An intellectual powerhouse that US News and World Report ranks as tied with Harvard for first among American universities, Princeton offers no formal athletic scholarships, and its academic pressures intensify the time demands on his student-athletes. Furthermore, Bradley must structure his offseason workouts within Ivy League guidelines, which are stricter than those of most NCAA Division I conferences.

Working with those challenges, Bradley has created an environment that emphasizes small-group and individual practices. He expects his coaches and players to think of the team as a group of interchangeable parts and to break down the game into a series of small tasks. The toss to second base for the double play becomes, in Bradley’s words, “above the waist, over the base.” You make the throw, you make the play.

“We’re teachers. We’re teaching baseball skills,” Bradley says of his coaching staff. “It’s not like hockey, where you have to have your lines, cohesiveness. Baseball doesn’t work that way. I can take my shortstop and work on double-play feeds all day long and I can stick a net at second base and have him throw a ball into the net. Or I can take a second-baseman and make feeds to him so he can practice taking feeds that are high and low. The parts aren’t interrelated. You don’t need all the parts at once.”

At the initial team meeting, Bradley begins by explaining his approach to his student-athletes. He recognizes that academics come first, and expects players to work out whenever time allows. He sets down general guidelines for how often players are expected to show up either on the field or at Princeton’s dedicated baseball- and softball-only indoor practice facility.

As players receive their class schedules, they sign up for “non-mandatory individual sessions,” following the guidelines of the Ivy League. Out of season, players are limited to two hours of mandatory practice a week. In addition, the league imposes “no-contact periods” where players cannot engage in any team activity. Conditioning work is scheduled by Princeton’s strength and conditioning staff and, because it’s dictated by availability of the facilities, is more regimented than baseball skill instruction.

“In terms of the baseball skill work, the kids have their time slots and if it fits into their schedule, a lot of them end up coming at the same time every week,” Bradley says. “But it’s always flexible enough that kids know that if they have papers due or they have something going on, they can always reschedule and come the day before or the day after or a different time that particular day.”

He tells them to check their e-mail several times a day because if the weather permits, he’ll be out on the field, hitting flies—or available to work with players in some other way. That coaches’ flexibility is the key. “We’re always here, we’re always around,” Bradley says. “It’s easy for us to be flexible. It’s not as easy for the kids to be flexible. For example, say a pitcher is scheduled to throw at 4 o’clock. But if he wakes up that morning and sees that somebody’s coming to give a guest lecture at 4 o’clock, he e-mails me in the morning and says he wants to go to the lecture at 4 and can he get his throwing in at noon.”

On weekends, the Tigers practice together as a team, and during the week, Bradley and his three-person staff schedule small-group and individual practices. They run practices for groups as small as two or three players, working from nine in the morning until six in the evening, and sometimes later. To accommodate pitcher Chris Young’s late-afternoon classes, for example, Bradley worked one-on-one during evening practices, making the most of his major league experience as a catcher on the New York Yankees, Chicago White Sox, Seattle Mariners, and Cincinnati Reds.

Bradley tweaks individual schedules, “holding hands” for athletes until they’ve gotten used to scheduling themselves. He believes that players shouldn’t go more than two to four days without working out. And he’s always open to an impromptu session. “If I’m doing paperwork in my office and a player wants some batting practice, I’ll give him the batting practice,” he notes.

Practice sessions generally lack a set form, and workouts flex to fit the needs of the athletes who are present. For example, he’ll have all his middle infielders practice double plays, shifting from one side of second to the other. Interchangeability is improved by an emphasis on the “above-the-base, over-the-waist,” break-it-down approach.

Bradley takes a position himself if necessary, but he’ll also use other players out of position, which he believes is good practice. Catchers taking grounders in double-play work, for instance, is good for their hands, while playing shortstop helps them understand what’s required to take a throw on a stolen-base attempt. Likewise, he’ll group pitchers on a long-toss drill with outfielders fielding flies.

Bradley believes the ideal size for a practice is two or three players and two coaches, but will accommodate one to seven players for a session of an hour to an hour and a half. If that happens, he and his assistants will typically break up the assembly into smaller groups. As far as pitchers, Bradley and his assistants are former catchers, which means they’re well prepared to work one-on-one with their hurlers without having to schedule a catcher. “And that’s a great way to teach,” Bradley says. “You can stand on the side and watch, but until you actually get back and catch guys, you don’t really know what their command is like and what they need to work on.”

One problem stems from the schedule’s fluidity. As exams, project deadlines, and other academic obligations come up, it’s easy for Bradley to lose track of how many times each player is coming to practice. But if he does, his players will generally police each other. “An upperclassman, or any player for that matter, will usually let another player know if he should be getting down and working out more often,” says infielder Sal Iacono. Pitcher Ross Ohlendorf, a fourth-round pick in the 2004 Major League draft, notes that “Coach Bradley notices if people aren’t working hard or are missing more practices than they should. Most of the players who don’t show up don’t play.”

Changing With the Seasons
As at other college programs, Princeton’s workouts evolve over the course of the year. In the fall, Bradley holds 12 team practices, the maximum allowed by the Ivy League. During this time, Bradley tries to hold as many intrasquad games as possible, where he can evaluate his athletes individually and assess what skills each player needs to work on. His goal is to have each player evaluate his own needs and focus on developing those skills. They’re taught to take the initiative in identifying areas that need improvement.

“During this period, we want players to become their own coaches,” Bradley says. That means primarily two things: learning how to adjust during competition and how to know what to work on. “We want them to become familiar enough with their strengths and their weaknesses, with the mechanics of their swing or with their delivery if they’re pitchers,” says Bradley. “If they make a mistake, we want them to think, ‘Yeah, I pulled off that one,’ or ‘Boy, I picked my head up,’ or, as a pitcher, ‘I overthrew that.’

“And then in practice,” Bradley continues, “the kids will come down and say, ‘I want to take a bunch of extra ground balls today because my rhythm was off,’ or ‘I felt like I was pulling off the ball, so let me work on hitting the ball the other way.’ Most of the time they tell us what they want to work on.”

During the fall and through Feb. 1, Ivy League rules limit skills practice and conditioning to six hours a week, with no more than two hours of coach-directed skills practice. So here Bradley uses his two hours to work on areas identified during the fall season.

“There are no secrets here,” Bradley says. “We work on the nuts and bolts of baseball. We use the same drills that Little Leaguers do.” For pitchers, Bradley uses a mix of mound work, long toss, and the towel drill, where pitchers maximize efficiency in their delivery by throwing a towel instead of a baseball. For hitters he wants to “slow it down” with tee work, soft toss, and dry swings. “We want to make players aware of their swing,” he says, and uses video to reinforce his lessons on the diamond. A fielder might do something as simple as throwing a tennis ball against a concrete wall, then fielding the rebound.

On Feb. 1, when practice can be held six days a week, Bradley starts warming up for the spring season, working slowly for the first two weeks as his athletes recover from their final exams in January. He tries to get outfielders outside as soon as possible to practice flies, and he tends to work with infielders as a group, giving them lots of grounders and working on double plays and similar multi-player work.

When the season starts, the focus shifts to “making sure guys feel good about themselves for games,” Bradley says. Players decide what they want to work on. For example, he has “hit ’til you’re happy” sessions, where he throws batting practice to whoever wants it, for however long they want it. “It’s not easy, but former catchers have a reputation for being able to throw batting practice,” he says. “If players are hitting for 40 minutes, they might hit off a tee for 20 minutes and I might throw to them for 20 minutes. If we ever have a day where we coaches need a rest, we’ll set up machines.”

Coaching Adjustment
Because practice time has been divided into so many small sessions, Princeton’s approach requires some adjustments on the part of Bradley and his coaching staff. The coaches cope by focusing on players’ individual time needs, their love of the game, and their increased time efficiency.

“It’s not work,” Bradley says. “We are self-proclaimed baseball rats, and there is nothing that all of us love to do more than get out of the office to go one on one or go two on one or throw somebody batting practice or throw somebody ground balls.

“When we started this, we didn’t really strategize with coming up with such an elaborate system,” he continues. “We just have this facility all the time, so we started off by telling the kids, ‘We’re around tomorrow. Come down when you can.’ And all of a sudden guys came down spread out throughout the day. I looked at my assistant coaches and said: ‘We got so much accomplished. Let’s keep doing it. Why should we try to practice for two hours when we can have players here throughout the day?’”

For Bradley himself, a typical day beings when he reaches his office at 9 a.m. He checks field conditions, weather reports, and e-mail. If conditions are good, he’ll send a team e-mail saying, “The coaches and I will be at Clarke Field at 3 p.m.” In bad weather, his program holds indoor practices at the athletic department’s Pit facility, which is shared with the softball team. Between players’ requests for practice sessions, Bradley takes care of paperwork, recruiting, and administrative duties, monitoring his e-mail regularly in order to keep up with players’ schedules. The only thing that takes priority over player practices are meetings with university officials.

Recruiting calls and paperwork may sometimes be postponed until nighttime in order to better accommodate players’ needs. Bradley’s preparation for practices is fairly minimal, such as watching a video just before a session with a player working on his swing. Bradley comes to most practices, but will sometimes let his assistants take the lead in coaching their athletes. It’s a day defined by scheduled practices and impromptu sessions if conditions allow, with administrative work filling in the gaps, and e-mail keeping the whole thing running.

Happy Players
Players seem to like the way Princeton’s baseball team works. Ohlendorf says, “The informal practice schedule helps us keep up with our schoolwork and enjoy playing more—as opposed to getting burnt out from feeling we are spending too much time at practice.” Iacono agrees. “Knowing that you have a coach who gives you every opportunity to take care of your academic requirements is a real relief,” he says.

Iacono believes the schedule has a positive effect on recruits as well. “In my case it made me more likely to go to Princeton, because it lessens the anxiety of starting the college experience,” he says. Ohlendorf agrees that informal practices help with recruiting, though in a more indirect manner. “The players on our team really like Coach Bradley’s flexibility and are happy to be playing for him,” he says. “This happiness comes through to the recruits.

“I think that this system works very well for baseball,” continues Ohlendorf. “Small groups seem to make practice run more efficiently, because there is less standing around.” Iacono agrees. “There are many times when an organized full-team practice would make getting your work done impossible,” he says.

Princeton Athletics Director Gary Walters says that Bradley’s coaching meets the university’s goal of emphasizing academics. Bradley says his system helps him get to know players better than full-team traditional practices and the “my-door-is-always-open” approach. “You really get to know your players by throwing batting practice or hitting grounders,” he says. “I enjoy the conversations as much as the playing.”

Bradley admits the approach has limitations. In high schools, for instance, a lack of uncommitted time for coaches would probably make it impractical for them to keep their schedules as flexible as he does. But partial implementation could free up some time, allowing athletes more time to be students as well. Few programs have a facility that’s just theirs, or shared with only one other team, Bradley admits, and that’s almost a necessity for following his approach fully. But at most colleges, Bradley sees no intrinsic reason why at least the principle behind his system and some of its parts can’t be adapted.

Bradley’s approach seems to pay off academically. Virtually all of Bradley’s players graduate, many in difficult majors. Part of the $1.65 million contract Young negotiated with the Pittsburgh Pirates, with whom he originally signed, required the team to fly him from Princeton to the Pirates’ Fall League sites, so that he could continue working on his degree.

And in another sign that Bradley’s strategy has succeeded both on and off the field, pitcher Thomas Pauly returned to the Princeton campus after signing a six-figure contract with the Cincinnati Reds to continue his work on a chemical engineering degree. “I tell recruits,” says Bradley, “that they don’t have to give up their dreams to come here.”